The eagle was the largest of the four main decimal base-units of denomination used for circulating coinage in the United States prior to 1933, the year when gold was withdrawn from circulation. These four main base-units of denomination were the cent, the dime, the dollar, and the eagle, where a dime is 10 cents, a dollar is 10 dimes, and an eagle is 10 dollars. The eagle base-unit of denomination served as the basis of the gold quarter-eagle (US$ 2.50), the gold half-eagle (US $5), the eagle (US $10), and the double-eagle coins (US $20).
With the exceptions of the gold dollar coin, the gold three-dollar coin, the three-cent nickel, and the five-cent nickel, the unit of denomination of coinage prior to 1933 was conceptually linked to the precious or semi-precious metal that constituted a majority of the alloy used in that coin. In this regard the United States followed long-standing European practice of different base-unit denominations for different precious and semi-precious metals. In the United States, the cent was the base-unit of denomination in copper. The dime and dollar were the base-units of denomination in silver. The eagle was the base-unit of denomination in gold although, unlike "cent", "dime" (or "disme"), and "dollar", gold coins never specified their denomination in units of "eagles". Thus, a double eagle showed its value as "twenty dollars" rather than "two eagles".
The United States' circulating eagle denomination from the late 18th century to first third of the 20th century should not be confused with the American Eagle bullion coins which are manufactured from silver or gold (since 1986), or platinum (since 1997).
Gold eagles were issued for circulation by the United States Mint from 1795-1933, half eagles from 1795-1929, quarter eagles from 1796-1929, and double eagles from 1850-1933, with occasional production gaps for each type. The diameter of eagles was 27 mm, half eagles 21 mm, quarter eagles 17 mm, and double eagles 34 mm.
Originally the purity of all circulating gold coins in the United States was eleven twelfths pure gold (the same 22 karats level as English crown gold) and one twelfth alloy. Under U.S. law, the alloy was composed only of silver and copper, with silver limited to no more than half of the alloy by weight. Thus, U.S. gold coins had 22/24 (22 kt or 91.667%) pure gold, at most 1/24 (0-4.167%) silver, with the remaining one-two 24ths (4.167-8.333%) copper.
The weight of circulating, standard gold, eagles was set at 270 grains (17.5 g), half eagles at 135 grains (8.75 g), quarter eagles at 67.5 grains (4.37 g). This resulted in the eagle containing 0.5156 troy ounces (16.04 g) of pure gold.
In 1834, the mint's 15:1 legal valuation of gold to silver (i.e. 15 weight units of silver and 1 weight unit of gold have the same legal monetary value) was changed to 16:1, and the metal weight-content standards for both gold and silver coins were changed, because at the old value ratio and weight content, it was profitable to export and melt U.S gold coins. As a result, the specification for standard gold was lowered from 22 karat (.9167 fine) to .8992 fine (21.58 kt).
In 1837 a small change in the fineness of the gold (increased to exactly .900 fine) was made, and the alloy (now 10% of the coin's weight) was again legally defined as silver and copper, with silver capped at no more than half. (i.e. 5% of total coin weight) The new 1837 standard for the eagle was 258 grains (16.7 g) of .900 fine gold, with other coins proportionately sized.
Between 1838 and 1840, the silver content was reduced to zero--the eagle in 1838, half eagle in 1839, and quarter eagle in 1840,--resulting in U.S. gold coins being 90% gold and 10% copper. Using only copper as the alloy in gold coins matched longstanding English practice (see crown gold). The 1837 standard resulted in a gold content of only 0.9675 troy ounces of gold per double eagle and 0.48375 troy ounces for the eagle. It would be used for all circulating gold coins until U.S. gold coin circulation was halted in 1933.
As part of its Modern United States commemorative coins program the United States mint has issued several commemorative eagle coins. In 1984, an eagle was issued to commemorate the Summer Olympics, and in 2003 to commemorate the Wright brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk. The pre-1933 .900 fine gold standard was restored, this would also be used in half-eagle gold commemoratives as well. The coins would be identical in fineness and size to their pre-1933 counterparts of the same face value. In 2000 a unique eagle, the 2000 Library of Congress bimetallic ten dollar coin, was issued commemorating the Library of Congress; it consisted of equal weights of an approximately 1/4 oz .9995 fine platinum core and a .900 fine gold outer ring.
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